Filming Leopards

In late 2017, after finishing work on my documentary Voice of the Night – The Devil Bird of Sri Lanka”, I discussed with my father (Dr. Mahendra Perera) and team (Dhanusha Bandara and Saman Hewage) the possibility of making a broadcast-length wildlife documentary. Shortly afterward, we began production by filming leopards. We chose Wilpattu National Park as our playground. Why? For one, there are fewer safari jeeps, and it makes filming easier as the animals are less disturbed. And we also loved the lush, green ambiance – preferable compared to the dry, dusty environs of Yala (another national park down south). To find out more about Wilpattu National Park, watch this video.

The team, from left to right: Dhanusha Bandara, Saman Hewage, my father (Dr. Mahendra Perera) in the middle, then myself and our experienced guide/driver Ajith

As our equipment for filming, we decided to use a combination of DSLR and video cameras. Although the DSLR coupled with the Canon 200-400 lens provided formidable picture quality, to film leopards we needed something more ‘pliable’. Leopards move around quickly, and using a DSLR camera with a heavy lens was not always practical, so we used a video camera to film moving sequences. The footage was later color graded and matched during post-production.

Our camera gear for filming leopards (Canon 5D Mark IV with a 400 prime and 200-400 lens and Sony PXW200 video camera)

We resided in a bungalow inside the park, as it was easier for us to get a head start early in the morning. During most of our filming trips (from November 2017 to August 2018), we stayed at a bungalow called ‘Maradanmaduwa‘ – a spacious bungalow that could house a lot of people. Nonetheless, our filming schedule was demanding: we got up at 5 AM, had tea and set out to film till noon. Afternoon we came back for lunch, then filmed again till 6 PM. It was exhausting, to say the least. As days passed and we filmed very little leopard behavior, I was beginning to second-guess my decision to film leopards. But that all changed one fateful afternoon…

Bungalow at Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka.
The spacious ‘Maradanmaduwa‘ bungalow

After a fruitless morning filming, our guide/driver Ajith suddenly said ‘leopard!’. We looked out, and there was a huge male leopard on a tree! We pulled our jeep closer as the leopard reclined (at the time, we didn’t know it was scanning for prey above). What happened during the next 5-10 minutes was so fast, that even the pictures below don’t tell the whole story.

The leopard quickly descended from the tree, and disappeared into the brush… we looked around, but couldn’t see it… then it charged out of the blue into the open, scaring a flock of peacocks. Now, after turning back to glance at us, it charged again! But we couldn’t see what it was targeting. Again, the leopard disappeared into the brush… only to reappear – this time carefully concealed behind a thicket… clearly, it was targeting some unseen prey.

Suddenly – in lightning speed – the leopard pounced forward and slapped down its paw… only later did we realize it was a monitor lizard. After catching it, the leopard started toying with the animal, just like a domestic cat! It was a spectacular spectacle and made for great filming. I included some screenshots from the final edited sequence, which you can see below.

Obviously, we were jubilant, as this hunting sequence became the centerpiece for our film during the editing phase. The resulting documentary called “Wild Sri Lanka – Realm of the Leopard” was eventually acquired by Discovery Channel to be broadcast in Asia this year. So, watch out for this dramatic hunting sequence in the film!